BOCA RATON, Fla. — The Saints might not have pulled out a whale during free agency on the defensive side of the ball. But they did find a player who they hope can help serve as the quarterback of the defense.
When discussing the team’s most recent free-agent acquisition, linebacker James Laurinaitis, New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis was quick to bring up his cerebral approach to the position and how it would help the defense next season.
“James has been a good linebacker for the St. Louis — now Los Angeles — Rams,” Loomis said. “We’re excited about the football intelligence he has, the instincts, the leadership skills; it will be fun to have him in the building.”
It will be fun and he should help, but the Saints will continue to tweak the roster. It would be a surprise if major changes come, but some smaller moves are still expected to happen.
After spending a good chunk of the available funds on tight end Coby Fleener during free agency, the team added Laurinaitis and acquired more depth at linebacker by adding Nate Stupar, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons.
That helps, but holes still remain. So it stands to reason the draft will be used to help bolster some other areas on the defense such as defensive tackle and defensive end. It’s also possible the team could draft a guard at some point to help the offense.
But Loomis said he feels the Saints were able to address a problem area on defense by adding to the linebacker corps.
“He’s going to come in and give us depth,” Loomis said of Stupar. “He’s a smart player with high football intelligence. Real smart on special teams. He’ll be able to back up a number of positions. I think with Mike Mauti, James and him, we’re adding to a position that we didn’t have a lot of depth in as we enter this free agency.”
The big overhaul last year was to rid the locker room of players who did not blend together properly. There was an effort to bring in the right guys and get back to the values that helped this team succeed back when Sean Payton came to town in 2006.
Somehow, over the years, the organization got away from those things. It now feels it’s on the right track. The current goal on the defensive side of the ball is to get the right mix between younger players with upside and veteran leadership.
Laurinaitis will help in that regard, but it’s too soon to know if the team has succeeded in finding that balance.
“That remains to be seen,” Loomis said. “Really, we can speculate and have these plans and plug guys in. Obviously, we have the draft to come, which is a really important element here. But you don’t really know until you get into training camp and the early part of the season and see how it all meshes together.”
The draft now looms.
The Saints could still shake free a couple of dollars by restructuring some contracts (Loomis did not want to discuss Drew Brees’ contract situation). The team is listed as having $1.2 million in cap space, but it still has to file Laurinaitis’ contract with the league.
Whatever happens, New Orleans will likely head into the draft with a couple of holes on the roster. But it doesn’t sound like the team will tie itself to one position or one idea.
It wants to be able to draft the top player on its board in the first round, regardless of where that player might fit in.
“I think anytime you go through free agency, ultimately your goal is to get yourself to the point where you can just take the best player, regardless of position,” Loomis said. “Obviously, we have some things that we still need to fill — some musts, some needs, some wants — if we could get to the point in that first round, in particular, we can just draft the best player on our board or best player available.”
Could guard be one of the positions that the team targets at a certain point in the draft or free agency after letting go Jahri Evans?
“We talked about that position,” Loomis said. “Obviously we want to add to our depth. We did sign Senio (Kelemete) to a multiyear contract. We got Tim (Lelito) in the building, who we like a lot. Andrus (Peat) has played some guard. I still think we would like to add to that interior line group if we can.”
The pieces of the puzzle still have to come together. For now, the Saints feel good about the linebacker position. If it comes together as the team hopes, that should, at least, be an improvement on where it was last season.